A Sports Story
by Brenda Kait
Illustrated by Eli-Bischof
A cold wind blew across Linsnrt’s back as he walked down the ramp from Treasury Court. Across the stone plaza, a vid wall replayed the final snrlgar match of the United Championship. Linsnrt watched his old team until the lead charger made a stupid move. Before captivity, Linsnrt had charged professional snrlgar with ferocity and reveled in the fans’ homage. But during his wartime captivity in human space, human audiences had responded almost as loudly to what they called “a tentacled, trunkless elephant” juggling trinkets. The similarity was disconcerting.
Best to get home. The new, live moss installed in his nest the day before would soothe his frustrations.
At the edge of the plaza a call came from behind Linsnrt. “Ho! Charger!”
Linsnrt turned. A Hrakt his size, but muscled and shiny, approached.
“Linsnrt! It is you!”
“Anggrot. You’re bigger now.”
They twined tentacles briefly, looking each other up and down.
“You’re slim these days,” Anggrot said.
“Yeah, my digestion is all messed up. The food in human space, even their so-called universal alien food, barely works.”
“I didn’t know you were back yet. Did you see the championship?” Anggrot pointed a tentacle at the vid wall.
Linsnrt forced the tentacles on his cheeks to hang limp. Anggrot had made the stupid move. “Congratulations to everybody on Hrogt. I’ve been in Treasury Court—getting myself declared undead, reclaiming my house, all that stuff. My bonded mate even signed a contract with somebody else, so I have to replace her. I haven’t had time to watch much video.”
“I’m Hrogt’s lead charger now. I grabbed the winning plume. Not as good as you were, of course, but I get the job done.”
“That’s the important thing.” The tip of one tentacle coiled, and Linsnrt shook it loose. He backed away from Anggrot to rejoin the Hrakt leaving the plaza, but Anggrot followed.
“I saw a vid of your release. You were lucky to live through all that.”
“Lucky and more.” Linsnrt’s captive life in human space as Samson the Magnificent was a memory he shoved to the back of his mind daily. “Say, do you know of a training pit that’s available soon?”
“Longropes might have a spare one. Hrogt is full up.”
Longropes? Linsnrt’s tentacles twitched. “Thanks. I’ll check.”
“Longropes needs a charger. If you don’t want to retire, you might try them.”
Charge with Longropes? Never! Linsnrt’s tentacles coiled to his cheeks, and he blew air through his mouth to relax them. “I haven’t thought of playing yet. I just want to see what I can do.”
“You gotta start somewhere. Work up. Ag-glarh!” Anggrot raised a tentacle and joined the flow of pedestrians.
Linsnrt watched Anggrot’s back cut through the smaller Hrakt around him. “Ag-glarh.”
* * *
That night Linsnrt vidded the chief of Longropes. Tunggot, a former snrlgar player whose skin now hung loosely over his frame, looked surprised to see him.
“Linsnrt! This is an honor.”
Linsnrt’s tentacles coiled partway. “Tunggot, you’re embarrassing me. I’m getting back into shape, and I wondered if you had a training pit I could rent.”
“Rent? For you it’s free. I’ll tell security to let you in.”
Linsnrt rubbed his snout with a tentacle. “I appreciate it. I’ll be over tomorrow at sunup.”
“Sure thing. Ag-glarh!”
* * *
Before dawn Linsnrt rolled out of his nest and started the autobrush. His skin tingling, he headed for Longropes’s headquarters.
Three muscular Ropers and a child who had shed only his forward dorsal plates awaited him beside the training pit. A layer of dew made the undisturbed mud into a brown mirror, and looking at himself, Linsnrt had a moment of self-consciousness.
“Ah, I’d rather be alone, Hrakt. This is my first mudout, and I’m probably going to embarrass myself. I’d rather no one else saw it.”
The teammates slowly turned toward the exit. The child raised a short tentacle. “Can I grapple with you?”
Linsnrt wrapped half his right tentacle around the other’s left and squeezed gently. “Now you can say you grappled with the great Linsnrt. Get out of here.”
When he was alone, Linsnrt walked briskly past the equipment rack, into the pit, and slipped. Damn. How could he have forgotten how to walk in mud? He flexed his toes and concentrated on grasping the bottom.
His right front toes did not spread as much as before (damned human foot-chain), but after several minutes they relaxed enough for walking. Linsnrt charged imaginary opponents all across the pit. When he reached the other side, he gasped for air (damned immobile captivity). He was in worse shape than he had thought. He put the memory aside and turned for another pass through the pit.
After two more passes, Linsnrt collected stakes topped with small plumes from the equipment rack. Anchoring the stakes in the mud with the plumes at the height of an opponent’s tailplate, he filled the pit with targets. When he charged, his first tentacle strike grasped the plume perfectly; subsequent strikes hit further and further off the mark.
Damned . . . His tentacle work was awful. It was just as well he was practicing in the Longropes pit—he wouldn’t want Hrogt to see him in this shape.
* * *
Linsnrt sloshed through Longropes’s mud pit every morning. Most of the team came in twos and threes to see him. He greeted all but shooed them away before he exercised.
After one session, a journalist met him as he climbed the ramp to the prep room. “R Linsnrt, can I have a few words with you?”
Linsnrt paused, muddy water dripping from his snout. Before, swarms of journalists had been a nuisance to push his way through; now, there was only this one. “Who are you?”
“I’m Arrnant Hrakt, with Sensory Entertainment.”
“All right, Arrnant, state your question.”
“Are you getting into shape to play snrlgar?”
Linsnrt discovered that he did not know. He laughed. “I’m going through the motions. They’re good exercise. Whether I play or not is a matter for the future.”
“So you’re thinking of playing?”
“The future is another place. We don’t live there yet.”
The interviewer asked a follow-up question, and for an instant Linsnrt feared having to discuss his captivity. But Arrnant merely prodded Linsnrt to relive his victories. After retelling several triumphs (not including the championship celebration from which he had been kidnapped), Linsnrt excused himself.
* * *
That day Arrnant circulated Linsnrt’s interview through the vidverse, along with a surreptitious picture that displayed Linsnrt’s ribs. Fans bewailed Linsnrt’s thinness. Thanking the Universe that the journalist had not seen him practicing, Linsnrt ate extra protein bricks that night.
After dinner Linsnrt set his house to respond cordially to fans who vidded and retreated to his nest. He found a comfortable spot on his back. How long did he need to train before he could face an opponent? Soon the house let through a vid, and the face of Longropes’s chief appeared on the vidwall. Linsnrt rolled upright.
“Good to see you, Tunggot. Do you need the training pit?”
“Nope. Great interview. Getting back in shape for us, huh?”
Linsnrt laughed. The worst team in the league wanted him. He had been Champion! “I’m not interested in playing.”
“How about an exhibition? The Mutilated War Survivors are raising funds at the Longropes pits. Professionals donate their time; amateurs pay big to charge and be charged. All one on one; no teams. Join us?”
Linsnrt’s pride evaporated. “Am I a pro or an amateur?”
Tunggot rubbed his snout. “A pro, of course. We’d love for you to work one afternoon. Four or five opponents paying to charge you would be a big pile of money for the survivors.”
Relief rose. “I’m glad you think I’m still worth money.”
“Believe me, you are. If you only stood there snapping your ropes, Hrakt would pay to see you.”
“Well, I’m closer to being in shape every day. When?”
“Thirty days. Do it?”
Linsnrt calculated rapidly. Currently he was top-heavy, but in thirty days he could gain enough belly weight for the beginnings of stability. Against amateurs his speed wouldn’t be a problem; he would just have to avoid getting knocked over. “I will.”
“That’s great.” Tunggot cut the connection.
Linsnrt returned to his back. It was a start. If he performed poorly, he could always clown. Show after show of rope tricks for goggling humans . . . night after night with one leg chained to a groundcar. But this would put his play back in the minds of the public. He lifted his legs and went to sleep.
* * *
On the exhibition day, Linsnrt arrived at Longropes’s site early, and the journalist waylaid him outside the prep room. “R Linsnrt, it’s good to see you again. How do you feel about this fundraiser?”
“Arrnant, can’t you say hello without starting your questions?”
Arrnant snorted. “No. How do you feel, taking part in a challenge sponsored by Longropes?”
“I feel good. This is a wonderful cause. Want a vid?”
“I do.” The journalist pulled a camera from his snout pack. He recorded videos as Linsnrt made sure not to show his ribs. “But you played for Hrogt, and now you’re lending your name to the Longropes banner. How does that feel?”
“I’m happy to do what I can for the mutilated survivors.”
After a few more questions, Linsnrt dismissed Arrnant. Inside the sparsely furnished prep room, there wasn’t much prep to do. Linsnrt unloaded his gear in a corner and let the lone autobrush go over him. His right front toes clung stubbornly together, but he could do a charity challenge without flexing them.
When the light over the door came on, Linsnrt followed the path away from the practice pit to his starting chute in Longropes’s main pit. Stands filled with Hrakt rose on five sides of the hexagonal pool; the judges’ stand occupied the sixth. He looked over the gate for his opponent, but only the top of a head showed. Good. The opponent was smaller than he was.
A row of lights flashed, and the gates swung open. Linsnrt was in the middle of the mud before his opponent had cleared his gate. Tentacles raised above his head, he alternated snaps that would hold his opponent’s gaze while he advanced.
Well on the opponent’s side of the center, Linsnrt hit the other player gently, shoulder to shoulder. The opponent nearly fell. He was elderly, and his tail dorsal had shriveled to almost nothing. Linsnrt slid along his flank and grabbed the plume clamped to the stubby dorsal plate. Stalking triumphantly to the judges’ platform with the plume, Linsnrt said, “My name is Linsnrt Hrakt.” The crowd’s shrieks filled the air.
Minutes later Linsnrt was posing for pictures with his challenger. Thinking of a compliment for the feeble Hrakt was much harder than defeating him. When the challenger’s family reclaimed him, Linsnrt returned to the prep room. There would be quite a delay before his next opponent because he had dispatched the first one so quickly.
Quickly. That felt good. Linsnrt swung his head and snorted at himself. The challenger had been completely occupied in standing upright in the mud. Not even Longropes would consider a charger who won that match. Linsnrt stuck both front feet into the autobrush and waited.
The next challenger’s eyes appeared over the gate—he was almost as big as Linsnrt. They grappled in the center of the pit. The opponent was young and fast, but he knew only textbook moves. After four minutes, Linsnrt had the plume. In front of the judges’ stand, Linsnrt twined tentacles with his challenger and congratulated him.
“Where’d you learn to play?”
“At Memorial Military School. We use snrlgar as a conditioning exercise. This match was my prize for being school champion.”
“I can see why you were. What’s your name?”
“I’m Rgart Hrakt.”
“You’re a worthy Hrakt. I enjoyed the challenge.”
By the afternoon’s end, Linsnrt was limping, and his right front toes ached fiercely. Linsnrt lifted both tentacles to the crowd and retired to the prep room.
Tunggot was waiting for him. “Coming along well. In a month we might try you out.”
“Really? Thanks. That means a lot to me.” All the way home on the rail line, Linsnrt alternated between elation at the compliment and embarrassment that it came from a Roper.
Copyright © 2021. A Sports Story by Brenda Kait